The difference between the Cardinals and the Cubs

Updated: Jul 7, 2018

I was driving home on Monday from a mini-vacation with my family when my phone started buzzing with Twitter alerts to the point that it was clear something big was happening in Birdsland. I don't look at my phone when I drive and neither should you, but my hope was that the Cardinals had fired Mike Matheny, an unexpected move to be sure, but within the realm of possibility given that the team had just been swept at home by the Braves. Alas, the news wasn't that great. Instead, as you all know by now, John Mozeliak, the President of  Baseball Operations for the Cardinals, called into question Dexter Fowler's effort-level when questioned on Dan McLaughlin's podcast Scoops with Danny Mac.

I don't have too much to say on the matter that hasn't been said well elsewhere. The comments were stupid and insulting, and completely unnecessary coming from someone in Mozeliak's position. Whether the subject is Dexter Fowler, Brett Cecil or anyone. All he had to say while remaining truthful and not setting off BS alarms everywhere was this: 

Dexter needs to get right. He knows it. We all know it. And know one wants to see Dexter get right more than him, and hopefully that'll happen in the second half because we need him. 

And scene. 

Since he chose a less intelligent route, and because the focus of the comments was an ex-Cub, several Cubs writers had their say on the matter. Which is totally fair. Fowler was and remains very popular in Chicago and this is a rivalry, after all. A lot of us on this side keep tabs on the Cubs even when their news doesn't directly impact ours. The angle some of them took, however, was bad. It was "This is why the Cubs are classy and a model organization and the Cardinals aren't" stuff. 

First, from the popular Cubs-blog Bleacher Nation. And then, last night, the typically-excellent Sahadev Sharma, who covers the Cubs beat for the Athletic, wrote the following in a piece titled Once a model organization for the Cubs, the Cardinals’ handling of Dexter Fowler shows poor judgement :

The bottom line is, the Cardinals were once known as a model organization. But what we’ve seen of late has been a jarring juxtaposition to the St. Louis teams of just a few years ago. The fundamentals on defense and the base paths are gone, and issues that normally should be handled in house are being discussed publicly on a podcast with a current team broadcaster, and by the team’s top baseball executive, no less.

Sharma is spot-on with his take on the team's fundamentals, of course, something that's been gnawing at the fanbase and local media for several seasons now. It's the insinuation in the rest of the paragraph and the title as well that I think is off-base. Mozeliak's stupid comments are not a symptom of an organization breaking down nor do they represent the glaring difference between two organizations on the opposite end of the class spectrum. They were just stupid comments that shouldn't have been said.

The only real glaring difference between the two organizations over the last several seasons is that one team has had better players. Although he's having a down year, the Cardinals haven't had a player of Kris Bryant's caliber since Albert Pujols left town. And he's flanked by a lineup that is probably the best in the National League from an offensive and defensive standpoint. It was a masterful rebuild by Theo and company, but to get there they had to operate at a level that gave them a few built-in advantages that the Cardinals haven't seen in years. Here, from today, is a telling excerpt from Joe Sheehan's newsletter:

In the bigger picture, this organization so many now consider lost continues to burp up inexpensive, average-to-good players from its farm system. Tommy Pham last year, Jose Martinez and Harrison Bader and Jordan Hicks and Jack Flaherty this year. This management group went and found Miles Mikolas. The Cardinals haven’t finished below .500 since 2007 and haven’t finished below .500 in consecutive non-strike seasons since 1958 and 1959. They’ve done this while not having a top-12 pick in the draft since 1998. They’ve had two top-15 picks in the last 21 drafts.  Read that again. The Cardinals have one sub-.500 season this century -- and two World Championships -- while having two top-15 picks, and no top-ten picks, in the last 21 drafts. This is an era when the best teams in baseball are built around top-ten picks. The Cubs have FIVE in their lineup most days. The Astros’ World Series winners had two, plus a #11 overall pick in George Springer. The Red Sox have had just two top-ten picks in 25 years, but turned one of them into Andrew Benintendi. There’s a slice of amateur baseball talent the Cardinals haven’t had access to since you had to explain “OBP” to broadcasters slowly, with charts, and yet the Cards never put bad teams on the field. 

Not bad for a formerly model organization. Sheehan's thoughts compliment a lot of Derrick Goold's pre-season essay on the Cardinals in the 2018 Baseball Prospectus Annual, in which he laid out how the organization is treading dangerously close to purgatory due to their lack of high draft picks over the course of the last two decades. An essay at the time that I thought was a bit too pessimistic, but is lately looking to be on the money. 

More relevant to the point here, I believe, is that the Fowler story exemplifies how certain things can be shoehorned into a narrative when things aren't going well. At the time of Mozeliak's comments, the Cardinals had lost four in a row and were only two games above .500 past the mid-season mark. Not great. But that's not emblematic of stupid comments that never should have been made, but rather because certain players have under-performed (Fowler, Kolten Wong, Greg Holland), the team has had to deal with a rash of significant injuries to their most indispensable players (Yadier Molina, Paul DeJong), and because Matheny is still bad at managing the bullpen.

To put it another way, the Washington Nationals, who themselves are having a very disappointing season, held a "closed door/players only" meeting following their loss on Tuesday to the Red Sox. Big time stuff. Spiritual people will sometimes say that "everything happens for a reason," while the more jaded sort will knock this line of thinking and counter that things happen, and then people will conveniently assign a reason to them after the fact. That's what a closed door/players only meeting is. If the Nationals have a strong second half and win another NL East title then a lot will likely be written about this meeting. If they continue to toil away near .500 then it will long be forgotten and never thought of again. 

Maybe this is a giant chicken and egg thing and I have the entire situation backwards, but I suspect if Mozeliak's comments were made in an alternate universe where Molina and DeJong were never injured, Alex Reyes was standing tall on the mound and throwing darts, and everything else was breaking right then not much meaning would be given to them as it pertains to the wellness of the organization as a whole.  

It doesn't mean Mozeliak's comments were okay. They weren't. And it doesn't mean Mike Matheny shouldn't still be fired. He should. But this is a player's game. The team with the best players is going to win. And if the Cardinals had not missed the playoffs the last two seasons then any talk of whether or not this is a model organization would cease to exist.